This summer, it looked as if the legend that was “Super” Mario Balotelli was finally coming to an end. The Italian striker had just finished a loan spell at AC Milan where he scored just once in 20 appearances. His return to Liverpool was just as disappointing as new manager Jürgen Klopp excluded him from the pre-season tour squad. It became evidently clear that if Balotelli wanted to continue his professional career, a change of scenery was desperately needed.
On the final day of the Summer Transfer Window, OGC Nice snapped up the striker on a free transfer. The French club were coming off a statement season where they finished fourth (seven places higher than they finished in 2014/15), but they had also lost their best player, Hatem Ben Arfa, to Paris Saint-Germain.
Could a move to the Allianz Riviera reignite Balotelli’s once promising career, or would it prove to be his final European stop before settling in MLS or China?
Apparently, Nice and Balotelli was a match made in heaven. In his first appearance for the club, the former Liverpool/Milan/Man City/Inter striker scored twice in a dramatic 3-2 win over Marseille. His next league appearance came with another brace in a 4-0 thumping of Ligue 1 giant Monaco. These four league goals eclipsed his combined tallies from his last two seasons.
Balotelli’s triumphant return to the spotlight hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down either. In his 12 games for the club, he’s already scored 10 times (eight times in the league). At Nice, Balotelli looks like the confident, and sometimes arrogant, striker that made him such a polarizing figure at Man City all those years ago. Who could forget his infamous “Why Always Me?” celebration?
His success has helped Nice climb to a spot that most people probably assumed only PSG would hold this year: first place. Currently, Les Aiglons find themselves with a four-point lead over second place Monaco, and a seven-point lead over a Zlatan-less PSG. Through 18 matches, they’ve lost just once (1-0 against Caen).
Even with their high finish from last season, I doubt that anybody expected Nice to even challenge for the top spot. Their unexpected rise has even drawn comparisons to the sport’s ultimate Cinderella story, Leicester City. Nice’s midfielder Younes Belhanda, who’s on loan from Dynamo Kyiv, even told reporters, “Nice reminds me of Leicester City … Nice makes me think about what I saw last year in Leicester. Their dynamism, freshness, a good technical base, the senior players …”
While it’s easy to focus on Balotelli’s revival as a key part of Nice’s success, there’s so many more factors in play. Through 18 matches, Les Aiglons have allowed just 13 goals (the best record in Ligue 1). The summer signings of Dante from VfL Wolfsburg and Dalbert from Vitória S.C. cost the club just under £6 million, and those two have become integral parts of Nice’s nearly impenetrable backline.
In attack, Balotelli isn’t even their leading goal-scorer. 23-year-old Alassane Pléa has scored 10 goals in the league and 12 goals through all competitions. Pléa cost Nice less than £1 million two years ago from Lyon, and he’s quickly emerged as one of the best young strikers in French football.
Even though there’s still a lot of matches left in the season, I think that we are finally seeing what a post-PSG Ligue 1 can look like. Last year, I wrote an article talking about how PSG’s dominance made Ligue 1 boring to even pay attention to. Now, we actually have some competition and an underdog to root for. While I wasn’t a huge fan of Balotelli’s when he was in the Premier League, I can proudly say that I am rooting for him to dominate France and lead Nice to their first league title since 1959.